My favorite recollection of voting is a series of memories, all from November 6, 2012. This day came after years of waiting to finally cast a ballot. As a child of a politically interested family, and as a debater throughout middle and high school, I could not wait to vote for the first time. I always thought that the age minimum for voting was unfair and probably told my mother who should have won elections at age nine or younger. I imagined voting as the ultimate right of passage; voting meant I was an adult, a decision maker, a stakeholder. When I watched politicians on television, I would think about eventually getting to pick them, and something about that felt so appealing. This was likely a combination of the fear of missing out, the impatience of a wannabe adult, and the desire to participate politically.
I got my first opportunity to cast a ballot in June 2012 in the North Dakota primary election, which I enjoyed, but something felt missing. Certainly the yard signs, billboards, and door knockers reminded me that we were in some sort of election season, but the process of voting early for candidates on whom my eighteen-year-old self had limited opinions lacked pageantry and excitement. There wasn’t the buzz I had been waiting for
This changed heading into the fall 2012 election. At every level, I was excited to vote. I spent a portion of my first semester at the University of North Dakota working to connect some local candidates for the state legislature with various student groups for presentation and forums. I felt personally invested in that race. Heidi Heitkamp and Rick Berg jostled for the open senate seat in a heated and extremely close contest And at the highest level, Barack Obama, who I begged my mom to take me to see when he stopped in Grand Forks in 2008, faced a tough opponent in Mitt Romney. I was interested for the ballot from front to back and was ready to finally cast my vote.
The morning of November 6th began with my typical routine. I got dressed in my hoodie and jeans and headed down to breakfast at Squires Hall, where I met every Tuesday and Thursday with my friend Megan before our geography class. At some point during our typical partaking in yogurt and chocolate cereal, I asked her about the day that I had been waiting for my entire life, wondering if and when she was going to vote. Her reaction reflected a decidedly different opinion on the exercise. Megan told me that she wasn’t going to vote, not because she thought voting was dumb or that people shouldn’t be excited about it, but because she simply didn’t have any hard opinions. She said the surge of political attack ads bothered her and furthered her disinterest.
At first, my reaction was to try to cram a lifetime of political excitement and knowledge into the mind of my recently-made friend in an attempt to get her to the polls (MTV’s get out the vote campaign definitely worked on me). I was less concerned about who she voted for, though I definitely shared my opinions, than if she voted at all. To me, this was an opportunity we had never gotten before, we could not possibly waist it. We made it. We had arrive. We got to vote.
The next thing she said stopped me in my tracks and changed my perspective. She said that if she voted at this point, knowing almost nothing about the candidates nor having any hard opinions, that it would be inappropriate. She thought that voting without research and information would limit the value of votes for those who were truly invested. She said the vote wouldn’t be hers. It would be the advertisers’, her parents’, or maybe even mine.
It took me a second to understand her reasoning, but I came to respect her argument. She certainly changed my opinion from “Absolutely everyone should vote, in every circumstance, all the time, forever” to “Everyone should inform themselves and vote.” I haven’t stopped thinking that political participation is an amazing gift, but my thoughts on the timing with which we should spread that excitement has changed. The weeks leading up to elections, especially presidential ones, bring with them campaigns to encourage voting, but maybe they should emphasize education on candidates and issues first. Rocking the the vote is more fun when you know the words and understand your part in the song.
Looking back on this first of my election day experiences, Megan’s reaction to voting made perfect sense. For someone not interested in history and politics, the campaign season is a grueling reminder of division. Negative ads are effective and get people talking, but they also shape the entire reaction to the process. Making voting about ensuring that the “bad guys” don’t win is toxic and harmful to the majesty of our most valuable democratic tradition. I am by no means blameless either, as I regularly find myself chastising opposing candidates rather than building up those who I feel will best represent my community, state, or country. Thinking about my breakfast with Megan helps to remind me of the need to speak positively of voting and the democratic process and general. It too reminds me of the need to help our friends and family members become informed far before election day.
For those friends of mine excited about the vote, however; the day still meant purposeful political participation. Among them was my roommate, Brett, with whom I regularly talked politics. After lunch the two of us made our way across campus, past a busy array of pedestrians, to the Student Wellness Center, where we were to cast our ballots. Walking into the gym in my jeans reminded me that I needed to start going to the gym…but a more important manner was at hand. The patriotically decorated lobby bustled with voters and volunteers. This was what I had been waiting for. This was an election. Two smiling elders met us upon check-in and directed us on the procedures of the process.
With my ballot in hand, I headed into the booth and began to choose my candidates. With excitement and joy, I selected my preferred options for Senate, House, state legislature, and of course, Commander in Chief. Seeing the names of those figures I had been reading about since middle school did something to me. It cemented the idea that I have the privilege to microscopically control our nation’s future. The months of viewing campaign ads and political arguments on social media tired me, but in this moment, I felt reinvigorated. It reminded me of my place in history.
That realization brought with it a wide smile as I turned in my ballot and collected my coveted “I voted” sticker. It took Brett and I perhaps five steps past the external door before we began asking each other how we voted on races and ballot measures. We generally knew where the other stood on the major contests (we had discussed most of them while in our bunk bed), but the local races and measures offered more room for comparison. We probably should have taken Megan’s advice as their were a few races in which we definitely just chose random names (I would go on to do more local research for subsequent elections), but this slight misstep could not and did not taint the day for us. This was our moment. Clad in stickers, we spent the rest of the afternoon going to class, talking with our friends about the candidates, noting other people’s stickers, and basking in the glow of civic duty.
As the day wore on, my thoughts shifted from excitement from simply participating, to anticipation of results. I badly wanted to know who would claim some of the marquee positions, and I was not alone. At about 7 pm, my friend Derek appeared in the doorway of my residence hall room with a series of electoral maps. He had predictions for Senate races, projections for the Presidential contest, and blank maps to track final results. This was his Super Bowl. At Derek’s request, we flipped our modest dorm room flat screen to MSNBC and settled in for the results.
Slowly, our room filled with our honors dorm friends, who brought with them snacks, calculus homework, and other welcomed distractions. Not everyone was as intense as Derek. Most of them probably came because people just congregated in whatever room was populated. Even some of our friends who did not vote joined the fray, Megan included. The amassing group still felt different than that of a normal gathering though. That buzz from our first real chance to act as political stakeholders, and adults really, stayed with us. When announcements broke of a state win for Obama or Romney, brief moments of applause broke out intermittently. The event did not feel like a manufactured political moment, but rather an authentic appreciation of history and our place within it. More than that though, it was fun. A group of people gathered organically to share thoughts, opinions, and reactions on a day that would greatly impact the years to come.
Once the news of Barack Obama’s projected victory broke, joy abounded for his supporters. One of our more eccentric neighbors ran up and down the hallway in celebration. Many of us high-fived or clapped as we essentially capped a season of question marks and anticipation. For those who weren’t as thrilled with the result, they still shared their feelings for finally getting to participate. Some of us stayed around to watch coverage of congressional races, but most left for typical gatherings of Nintendo, reruns, or late-night dining.
The next day, the buzz had faded considerably, but was still present through social media posts, news segments, and a bevy of class discussions. Days passed, and my life returned to its normal routine. I had my breakfasts with Megan, my political walk-and-talks with Brett, and my nightly hangouts with my group of friends, but a tiny part of me felt differently.
Perhaps on the smallest noticeable level, the events of that day shifted my thinking. Election day helped me re-imagine the need to engage friends like Megan in politics while understanding their perspectives and avoiding coming off as preachy. It cemented my future excitement when walking into a polling location. It reminded me of the power and responsibility I have as a voter. It taught me that elections can still be public affairs through which people come together to celebrate democracy as they have for centuries now. Most of all, election day provided me, and everyone who voted, with an opportunity to think about how we want our communities, states, and country to change for the better. This reflection strengthens every time I go to the polls, and this is why I love voting.